Archive of the Asian Wall Street Journal article, “More Casual Office Structure Helps Gays’ Coming Out in Singapore” (16 June 2000)

AWSJ June 16, 2000

More Casual Office Structure Helps Gays’ Coming Out in Singapore

When Singaporean Web site entrepreneur Shenzi Chua realized he was
gay two and a half years ago, he didn’t hesitate to come out of the
closet to his colleagues. “Because in the Web business, people I’m
dealing with are very yuppie, not old and traditional; I’m not
worried at all,” he said.

Such openness, especially in Singapore, where homosexuality is still
illegal, was unheard of a few years ago. But the New Economy has
loosened much more than dress codes and job titles. Diversity —
whether in hairstyle or sexual orientation — is part and parcel of
the office culture at many technology companies. Even at more
traditional firms in Asia, a skilled-labor squeeze is forcing the
adoption of more antidiscrimination policies.

“It’s a very nascent trend,” said Russell Heng, a gay activist in
Singapore. The vast majority of gays are still closeted in the
workplace, and workers still run a high risk of being penalized for
their sexuality. Asian countries for the most part have no legal
protections for gays, and so nothing, in theory, prevents a company
from firing an employee for his sexual preferences.

But Mr. Heng notes that a growing number of gay professionals and
managers are opting for disclosure. A handful are even coming to work
functions with their gay partners, and introducing them as such. Of
course, there are degrees of being out. Most still prefer discretion,
stating matter-of-factly that they are gay when asked, but not going
out of their way to introduce the topic. And there are still many who
go to extremes to hide their sexuality from their co-workers, even
avoiding altogether public appearances with their same-sex partner.

Clearly, certain industries are much more receptive than others. One
expatriate lesbian executive at a U.S. investment bank describes her
industry as one of the more homophobic. She says she wouldn’t be open
about her sexuality even if she were working for the same company in
the U.S. The “old boys club” atmosphere makes it hard enough for
straight women to get ahead, never mind gays, she said.

At the other end of the spectrum is a company like Intel. In
Singapore, the chip maker last year set up a gay corporate social
club, at the instigation of one of its gay executives. In the U.S.,
according to Intel’s Web site, it has “formally sanctioned” employee
groups that provide “networking, integration, development and
outreach activities” to “African-Americans; Latinos; Native
Americans; Asians; Indians; Christians; Muslims,” as well as “gay,
lesbian, bisexual or transgender employees; women and others.”

In the U.S., the buzzword for this trend is “inclusiveness,” where
companies, in their quest to attract and retain employees, provide
perks like social clubs for everyone from lesbian single mothers to

The change is far subtler in Asia. Mr. Chua was working for Global
Knowledge Network, a U.S.-based information-technology training
company, when he disclosed his sexual orientation. “The hierarchy is
quite flat, with no competition, so people don’t use your
homosexuality as a tool to bring you down,” he said. Because most of
his work was outside the company, and he didn’t have much contact
with senior management, he felt there was less to lose by coming out.

Not that Mr. Chua, 29, stood on the desktops and proclaimed his
sexuality. He chose instead to tell a handful of colleagues with whom
he socialized, allowing the information to come out in the natural
course of conversation “about life and everything.” Far from
alienating his colleagues, his revelation improved his relationship
with his co-workers, mostly Asians in their 20s and 30s. “People get
used to you the more you tell them about you — they take it as
another level of friendship,” he said.

For Alex Au, disclosure was a matter of leadership. At the time, Mr.
Au was a senior manager at a Singapore-listed paint manufacturer,
which he declined to name. “It was important to reassure them [other
gay employees at the company] that they shouldn’t feel threatened,”
he said. It was easier for him because “there weren’t many layers
above me that could put the screws in,” said Mr. Au, who recently
tried to organize a gay and lesbian forum in Singapore, only to have
it squashed by the government. (Mr. Au declined to identify his
current company or position, saying he wants to keep his professional
affiliation separate from his comments about homosexuality.)

Mr. Au, now 47, had become exasperated with one of his male
colleagues, “who kept going on about girlie bars,” and dragging Mr.
Au to his favorite sleazy nightclubs. He finally told the colleague
he wasn’t interested in the subject. When the co-worker asked why, he
told him outright that he was gay. Far from being shocked, the co-
worker simply said, “Ah, that’s why you wanted to leave that bar
sooner than I did,” Mr. Au recalled. He soon let others in the
company know, although he found it difficult to get the word out.
“People were so honored that I confided in them that felt they should
keep my secret for me,” he said.

But without a boss like Mr. Au, the constant threat of a glass
ceiling silences the vast majority of gays. A junior marketing
executive at a major American computer company had high hopes for his
future when he first joined the firm, which was very explicit in its
antidiscrimination policies. But within weeks he overheard colleagues
making cruel remarks about the homosexuality of a gay senior manager
who had left the company. “At that point I decided, no one must
know,” said the executive, who is 24. “It’s always easy to justify
promoting someone else if they don’t like a gay.”

He has found ways to fend off the curiosity of his colleagues without
isolating himself. When a co-worker once accused him of being gay
because he doesn’t have a girlfriend, he joking responded that yes,
he was gay, and then shot the question back. “Ironically, no one will
believe it in the future if it were to come out,” he said. Most of
his colleagues don’t probe further when he offers evasive answers to
personal questions.

The executive also plays it cool when a co-worker catches him in the
street with his partner. He refuses to lie, but finds if he just
introduces his lover as a “friend,” and doesn’t act surprised or
guilty, people don’t jump to conclusions.

Down the road, though, the marketing executive said he is unlikely to
stay in a job where he feels he has to skirt basic questions about
his identity. He has a lot of friends who are older, farther along in
their careers and apt to remain closeted at work. He doesn’t wish for
that for himself. “In the end, it’s just a job and it’s not worth
it,” he said.

Write to Samantha Marshall at sam.marshall@…


This article was first archived by Kenneth Lau on SiGNeL:

About groyn88

Ultraliberal advocate of universal human rights, justice and fair play.
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